Inspiring Figures is a monthly column where I share with you people who are catalysts in inspiring and motivating me. They are people that you should really know about.
You can find the whole list of my inspiring figures over on the shiny new website, InspiringFigures.co. Each feature first took place live on YouTube Live, this is a write-up of our conversation. Thank you once again to everyone that joined in live!
October 2020 features Eleni Routoula
Eleni describes herself as a multitasker. Although it isn’t a job title as such, she embodies what it means to be a multitasker!
After completing a Chemical Engineering undergraduate degree in Greece, she moved to the UK to do a Masters then PhD. It was when she started her PhD that she realised that there are many things other than chemical engineering. It was during this time she dove into all these extracurricular activities and I realised that she enjoys them almost as much as enjoys doing research.
Once Eleni completed her PhD, she became a freelancer as a content creator with a bit of science communication communication. Recently, she secured a postdoc in Chemical Engineering where she does further research as well as more of the “outreach” and “networking” aspect of her role.
I first met Eleni at a Code First: Girls course back at the University of Sheffield – I told you she has done quite a bit of extracurricular activities. She describes our encounter back in the course perfectly on her Instagram post here! 😊 Since then, I’ve enjoyed following her on Instagram to see her succeed one step at a time.
I hope that you get some value from our conversation – it was an honest account of her experiences so far which was so incredibly inspiring.
Listen to our live conversation
👩🏻🔬 Eleni’s journey – paving her own path
Eleni shared that growing up she had always thought that there were only two options to a successful career. “It was like, you go to uni, and then you get a job in industry or start a PhD and when you finish your PhD, you get a job in industry, or you stay academia.” She slowly started to realise after some time that she didn’t like any of the options. To help her get a better perspective on what else is out there, she approached other people who had a different career path and a different journey.
“And I realised that you start something and you might end up as something completely different. And that’s absolutely fine. At a career path is not a straight line.” As she navigated her time in academia, she further broadened her solid Chemical Engineering background looking at different perspectives in environmental aspects, bio point-of-view and even from extracurricular activites in admin and networking.
“So my journey was like, I finished my PhD and then I struggled to get a job to begin with because I only focused on one version of success.” Eleni landed some freelance contracts and then a postdoc. She advises that career journeys aren’t just one straight line and that’s OK – eventually you will find what works for you and your journey.
📱 Sharing her journey openly on social media
Eleni began sharing on Instagram for fun. As she used it more, she began to realise that there are people out there on Instagram who are going through similar situations to herself and were openly sharing their journeys. She found comfort and inspiration from these people as she was trying to navigate her own journey. This inspired her to do the same and share openly on Instagram with the intent to help others going through the same thing.
“But also, it seemed like it was helpful for other people because they realise as well that there are other people as me saying the same things. So we kind of created that community! We grew from each other. As I progress, they progress, our people progress. It was very inspiring!”
💙 The biggest challenges and surprises in Eleni’s journey
“The biggest challenge was to overcome the fact that that the thought I had to be perfect. That I will solve the problems, I will change the world and whatever. And I think that a lot of people start their projects like that, which is not a bad start. I mean, you have to be motivated. But at some point, you need to get realistic that the tiniest, tiniest things you’re studying in your PhD is not going to change much really.” Eleni shared that in some cases, what you’re looking at might not even work which had happened in her case. “It took me a long way, a long way to feel okay with that, because it’s been a couple of years where I was thinking that it’s all my fault. And it’s because I’m a bad researcher or it’s because I don’t belong in a lab. It’s because I don’t know how to read the papers or whatever.”
Eleni honestly shared that slowly she realised that it wasn’t her specifically but there were other issues like imposter syndrome which she describes as “feeling lie you’re never ever gonna be good enough.” or in some cases, lack of supervision and lack of support. She goes on to describe that PhDs require a lot of support to help you see if you’re on the right path. Eleni believes that this is also something that actually surprised her! “There are there are some job titles out there as research upon development, but I don’t think they’re doing as much as they could be doing, especially to support the mental health of people like us who spend their days and nights in labs and tests and analysing data, collected data, everything regarding data.”
With imposter syndrome and failures being her main challenge, she also shared thatover the four years of doing her PhD she felt that she had lost herself. “But now, it’s been, it’s been exciting to refine myself! It’s like you live your safe bubble of the past four or five years, but then you step out and need to regain confidence in your abilities.”
💪🏼 Proudest moments
Eleni shares two answers for this:
- Her serious answer: How far she’s come since coming to the UK. “because I was a person who didn’t really know what it was outside their flat.” She also shares that she’s proud that finished her PhD earlier than expected and most recently, surviving the pandemic.
- Her second answer: She has a set of earring collection which she’s really quite proud of!
⚡️ Key learnings and advice for those wanting to pursue a similar journey
- Don’t chase after perfection. “You’re going to have many, many rough moments during your journey. And that’s, that’s fine. I’m trying to normalise the fact that research is not perfect. And it’s not meant to be perfect. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any point of looking for more.”
- Speak up. Eleni shared that there are things that you shouldn’t take e.g. bad behaviour from supervisors. “If you do it, you’re definitely gonna feel better. And then you’re probably gonna end up helping other people as well!”
Eleni has been actively sharing on her Instagram some tips relating to employability especially in the age of COVID. Some of the common mistakes she’s seen:
- Not tailoring your job application. “So if you if you, for example, are looking for at a developer role or whatever and your CV says, I’m a coder, I know how to go out in x, y, Z. And the job spec is like, we don’t need a coder who needs someone who understands, x plus coding, and then you’ve missed this bit, then you’re not gonna get selected for an interview. Or if you do, then you might, you might not be given the job if you don’t like approaching correctly.”
- Not really understanding what you want to do. Even if you’re qualified, you may not be chosen compared to other candidates because as Eleni said, ” you may be lacking the passion and the motivation around it. We need to kind of understand what we really want.” Some self-reflection goes a really long way!
Key learnings from job hunting
Eleni had been actively job hunting before COVID hit which she described was already quite difficult, but even more so after COVID hit. Her biggest learning was not to take rejection personally. “Because it’s not that me personally got rejected. I don’t know how many people applied for a specific role. But it was just one successful candidate. So everyone else was rejected, not just me.” She described that re-framing her mind this way has helped her build her overall resilience.
Another learning for Eleni was “to fight for feedback”. People don’t really talk about this, but fighting for some personalised feedback is so important to candidates so that you can find out where you can improve. Fight for it!
Job hunting in COVID-19
“My biggest advice on this front is, first of all, if you really the job to get money in the bank, not necessarily to work or something that you like, then go get a whatever job and then in that meantime, try to get as much experience as you can in the things that you actually enjoy.”
Eleni advised that there are plenty of opportunities in online courses, seminars, and maybe networking activities that you can get involved in. Improving your employability at this time can help you as you continue your job search.
🏡 Working from Home, COVID-19 life
Just like most people, Eleni opened up with the fact that WFH life has been quite difficult especially when you spend your lesiure and work time at home. What helped Eleni during this weird time was to keep everything as seperate as possible (your home office shouldn’t be your bed!) and to wear work clothes at home. She jokes, “Those clothes does that make you feel slightly uncomfortable.” 😂
✨ What does the rest of 2020 look like?
For the rest of 2020, Eleni wants to continue to grow personally, to develop her development skills, alongside the pandemic and work from home situation. Another important part for her is to spend quality time with her friends and family as much as she can.